Train That Dog Every Day?- Not Likely
The customer who brings me a dog for training, and tells me he wants the dog worked every day is going to get an answer he does not want to hear.
When I started training retrievers as a professional in 1972, I thought that the dogs needed to be trained 6 days a week for at least a half hour each. After the first several hundred dogs, I began to notice that some weeks, when I skipped day or two of training, a lot of dogs seemed to make great strides of progress in training. Over the years I have found by trial and error that dogs seem to train much faster on a schedule of training every other day. I have further noted that most of the times that a dog has had an "lightbulb" moment and mastered a difficult behavior in an astonishingly fast rate, it has usually been a dog that has not been worked for a week or two for various reasons. I have found that one can produce some great leaps forward in a dog's training program by leaving him in the kennel for a week or two, and then going for a really difficult behavior.
Additionally I have found that keeping lessons very short and focused on the learning objective leads to the fastest overall training. If I ignore the travel time walking at heel to get to the training area, the core piece of the training lesson lasts typically 3 to 5 minutes. That time length is optimum for learning in dogs. Two obvious exceptions on brevity of sessions are training on honoring and steadiness and when performing long water retrieves. In the last few years some research has been done which bolsters my experiences and opinions.
A project analyzing frequency and duration of training sessions was conducted in 2010 at the University of Copenhagen. This later study involved 44 dogs divided into 4 groups. The groups were;
W1 - Trained weekly -1 session per day, one day per week.
W 3 - Trained weekly - 3 sessions per day, 1 day per week.
D 1 - Trained daily - 1 session per day, 5 days per week
D 3 - Trained daily - 3 sessions per day, 5 days per week
Here is the abstract:
The effect of frequency and duration of training sessions on acquisition and long-term memory in dogs Helle Demanta,∗, Jan Ladewigb, Thorsten J.S. Balsbya, Torben Dabelsteena
a University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Science, Dept. of Biology. Universitetsparken 15, DK-2100 København Ø Denmark
b University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Life Sciences, Dept. of Large Animal Sciences. Grønnegårdsvej 8, DK-1870, Frederiksberg C, Denmark
Most domestic dogs are subjected to some kind of obedience training, often on a frequent basis, but the question of how often and for how long a dog should be trained has not been fully investigated. Optimizing the training as much as possible is not only an dvantage in the training of working dogs such as guide dogs and police dogs, also the training of family dogs can benefit from this knowledge. We studied the effect of frequency and duration of training sessions on acquisition and on long-term memory. Forty-four laboratory Beagles
were divided into 4 groups and trained by means of operant conditioning and shaping to perform a traditional obedience task, each dog having a total of 18 training sessions. The training schedules of the 4 groups differentiated in frequency (1-2 times per week vs. daily) and duration (1 training session vs. 3 training sessions in a row). Acquisition was measured as achieved training level at a certain time. The dogs' retention of the task was tested four weeks post-acquisition. Results demonstrated that dogs trained 1-2 times per week had significantly better acquisition than daily trained dogs, and that dogs trained only 1 session a day had significantly better acquisition than dogs trained 3 sessions in a row. The interaction between frequency and duration of training sessions was also significant, suggesting that the two affect acquisition differently depending on the combination of these. The combination of weekly training and one session resulted in the highest level of acquisition, whereas the combination of daily training and three sessions in a row resulted in the lowest level of acquisition. Daily training in one session produced similar results as weekly training combined with three sessions in a row. Training schedule did not affect retention of the learned task; all groups had a high level of retention after 4 weeks. The results of the study can be used to optimize training in dogs, which is important since the number of training sessions often is a limiting factor in practical dog training. The results also suggest that, once a task is learned, it is likely to be remembered for a period of at least four weeks after last practice, regardless of frequency and duration of the training sessions.
Looking at the graph of learning curves for the 4 groups one can generalize:
- The dogs trained one session per week (W1) learned the fastest
- The dogs trained 3 sessions per day, 5 days per week (D3) showed the slowest rate of learning.
- The learning level achieved in 18 sessions was nearly twice as high in the W1 dogs compared to the D3 dogs. Looking at the slope of the curves it also appears that the D3 dogs will never catch up with the W1 dogs.
A pertinent fact in this study is that the all the dogs were in a controlled environment. When not in a training session they were confined to pens. A typical family dog/gundog will probably be living in the house, playing with the kids, etc. That is great. It develops the dog's communication skills and gives great enjoyment to the family. However, some structure should be imposed upon the dog's activities and behaviors, especially those that compete with behaviors being trained.
The prime example of a critical behavior and an unstructured environment during non-training time is steadiness. If you are giving the dog 10 reinforcements per session or 20 reinforcements per session for sitting quietly while training dummies are thrown, and unbeknown to you, the kids are giving the dog 30 or 40 reinforcements a day for breaking for a tennis ball throw, then the breaking behavior is going to predominate. Some control must be maintained over the dog's environment. The dog must be prevented from learning behaviors that are in conflict with a trained gundog. The desired behaviors are obedience, coming when called, steadiness for fallen objects. Thus games of chase, and uncontrolled retrieves should not be played. Then your gundog training program can be effective, whether it is conducted one day per week or five days a week. The Copenhagen study says that the dog will be trained faster and to a higher level on the one day per week schedule.
The lesson conveyed with this study is that less training is better. The schedule I recommend is every other day. This should be great news for those that think they don't have enough time to train gundog.